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Political and Religious Sectarianism: A Comparison and Contrast

Ted Crawford

From New Interventions, Vol.8 No.1, 1997

This article was written in the late 1980s in rather sociological, not to say sociologese, language. I sent it to Bryan Wilson at All Souls, who replied very kindly and made some suggestions, but I never got round to getting it published in any respectable academic journal. Its time seems rather past, the remains of the Workers Revolutionary Party have moved on and out since I wrote, but I would argue that the past, however ridiculous, has a few lessons on pitfalls to be avoided today. The main theme is that such cultic bodies are reciprocally – I will not dignify the process with the word ‘dialectically’ – shaped both by their organisational structures and by the ideology. The logic of these processes might eventually result in formations far removed from the views of those who founded them, let alone those in whose name they were founded. Comrades might amuse themselves by applying this sort of approach to other left-wing groups with cultic tendencies, as it might illuminate their understanding.

‘The sect is not only an ideological unit, it is, to a greater or lesser degree, a social unit, seeking to enforce behaviour on those who accept belief, and seeking every occasion to draw the faithful apart from the rest of society and into the company of each other. In its extreme form, the sect provides a sphere of investigation for the sociologist somewhat akin to the anthropologist’s isolated tribal society. The essential difference, however, is that the sect, as a protest group, has always developed its own distinctive ethic, belief and practices against the background of the wider society; its own protest is conditioned by the economic, social, ideological and religious circumstances prevailing at the time of its emergence and development.’1

THE LITERATURE on religious sectarianism is large, and has given rise to considerable debate about the typology of such sects. The basic categories within which these debates take place seem to derive from Weber via Troeltsch, and sects are characterised by differing clusters of attributes. However, since the studies of sectarianism have expanded beyond Protestantism to the whole world with its many religions and cultures, the task of fitting the varieties of human behaviour displayed into the Procrustean bed of consistent theoretical categories which are both detailed and persuasive seems, at least to this observer, a task beyond human capacity. Others have attempted to define these groups in terms of simplified schema based on the sects’ attitude to the secular, so that sects are now divided into the broad categories of world denying, world indifferent or world affirming. This would seem to confine the categories to groups whose ideology was other-worldly, and that might be too constricting, because such comparative observations might have value outside the purely religious grouping. Thus this piece simply raises the question of what constitutes the distinction between the political and the religious, and suggests the difficulty of distinguishing these two phenomena. It is not, of course, the first time that this has been attempted.2

Whatever typology is adopted, it would seem that close descriptions of individual and collective behaviour of groups held together by ideologies, which cut off the individuals within these groups from the majority of society, have great value for the light it throws more generally on human dynamics. An interesting aspect of this is the way that the behaviour of sect members interrelates both with their own ideological conceptions and with the outside world. The ideology is changed by the pressures of the world outside, but it does so in subtle and unexpected ways, since there is a complex dialectical process at work between organisation, the ideology itself, which also tends to change, and the way events in the world outside are perceived. What is more, since this world is a dynamic one and always in a state of flux, the response of the sectarians to such changes has a fascination of its own. An illustrative example of the complicated and contradictory interaction of belief and organisational form is found in the anarchist journal Freedom, originally founded by Prince Kropotkin and still in existence today. Anarchists spurn the ‘tyranny of the majority’, and bitterly dislike the idea of the editorial board being elected at the behest of a membership. A membership to them is anathema, and is half-way to Stalin’s dictatorship. As a result the editorial board simply appoints new members as positions become vacant, using the property rights which were invested in it by the late Prince, though most of the editorial board would assert, as a self-evident truth, that ‘Property is Theft’. It could not have been otherwise, and, furthermore, it may not be a coincidence that Freedom is the longest-lived political journal on the left.3

I intend in this short article to discuss certain other social formations – those of some of the tiny political sects which often show many of the same clusters of attributes as the religious ones. They are not, of course, the same thing, for religious sects claim to be legitimated by supra-mundane concepts and thus pursue ends that transcend normal experience and everyday rules of evidence, while the political groupings pretend to understand the world better than others, and to see below the surface phenomena that determine the actions of the unthinking majority. We shall see later that this may mean that they develop in a different fashion from their religious analogues, even if there are often strong similarities. We must also be clear that the range of behaviour that is apparent among political tendencies is very wide, at least as wide if not wider than that displayed by religious sects. Just as one must distinguish between a church and a sect, so one must distinguish between a political group with highly developed religious-sectarian attributes and what is, in fact, merely a small group of people with distinct and perhaps original political ideas. There is, of course, a spectrum of types, and some political organisations go through a pre-sectarian phase before moving to a sectarian one. The process seems less common in the other direction, though it is not unknown under conditions of social upheaval. Interestingly enough, left-wing groups are aware of these distinctions, and, using religious language, often accuse one another of sectarianism or triumphalism, frequently both at once – though these two qualities are far from being exclusive in any context – while French groups denounce ‘Ceux qui gardent leur boîte de chapelle!’ after others have refused unity negotiations. Marx and Trotsky themselves, much plagued by this phenomenon, attempted roughly to define the difference between a sectarian and a political individual in terms which suggest that it is the degree to which the political sectarian isolates himself from the concerns of ordinary people about him, rather than his beliefs per se, that determines his category.4

My sources and techniques for this investigation are not in principle any different from those who have studied religious groups. I have used the open material which is published by the groups, and have talked with members and above all ex-members. I have also looked at some of the other studies of religio-political sectarian groups. I have, when a member of the International Socialists, debated with the Socialist Party of Great Britain in Paddington. I have not hidden the fact that I have considerable differences with these bodies. My own background is that I was a member of three broadly Trotskyist groups in between 1964 and 1978. I was never a member of the Socialist Labour League, but was present in their milieu from 1958, and went to an early and much more political meeting of theirs chaired, if I remember rightly, by Brian Behan, the brother of the playwright Brendan. In the course of 30 years, I have known and talked with many of their ex-members. My own position is that I would still consider myself some kind of Marxist, and would argue that the religious characteristics which I have perceived in the WRP and SPGB were sometimes seen in much more attenuated form in other tendencies. To any critics of mine in these other bodies, I would simply say: ‘If the cap fits, wear it!’ To be honest, I believe that the SLL/WRP was sui generis, though this view is not shared by some ex-members, who tend, far more than I do, to see all Trotskyist proto-parties as of this type, having a tendency to this kind of behaviour, even if these other political entities are not so extreme. I shall consider only left-wing groups, since I suspect that the internal and external dynamics of right-wing extremist groups are rather different, and I have little knowledge of, and even less empathy with, them. I am sure that some fascist groups show some religious characteristics of a sectarian kind.

It is necessary first to look at the structural characteristics that authorities who study them use to define religious sects.5 Bryan Wilson and Andrew Walker see 11 behavioural traits which define religious sectarians. Wilson lists the following items that are typical of a sect:

  1. It is a voluntary association.

  2. Membership is by proof to the sect authorities of some special merit, such as knowledge of doctrine or conversion experience.

  3. Exclusiveness is emphasised, and the expulsion of deviants is exercised.

  4. There is the conception of an elect or gathered remnant with special enlightenment.

  5. Personal perfection – however defined – is the expected level of aspiration of members.

  6. There is ideally a priesthood of all believers.

  7. There is a high level of participation by ordinary members.

  8. The member is allowed to express his commitment spontaneously.

  9. The sect is hostile or indifferent to the secular society and the state.

  10. The commitment of the sectarian is always more total and more clearly defined than that of a member of other religious organisations.

  11. Sects have a totalitarian rather than segmental hold over their members, and their ideology tends to keep the sectarian apart from the ‘world’. The ideological orientation to secular society is dictated by the sect, or member behaviour is strictly specified.

Now, of course, Wilson and Walker recognise that these are ideal types, as it were. No sect exhibits all these characteristics in a fully-fledged way, and in some religious bodies some of them are missing entirely. Yet if we change a few of these concepts slightly, we can see how some small political bodies reflect similar modes of behaviour.

  1. These little groups are voluntary, though this is their least distinctive characteristic, for so indeed are tennis clubs.

  2. The idea of ‘conversion’ is missing, but merit because of knowledge of doctrine is certainly there.

  3. Some are notorious for the expulsion of deviants, and exclusivity as regards other similar bodies is emphasised.

  4. Some see themselves as an ‘elect’, the ‘World Party of the Revolution’, appointed for a great historical task.

  5. Members of the group may well be exhorted to harden themselves for the great struggles ahead, to become Bolshevik Jesuits, ‘shock troops of the Revolution’, ‘dead men on leave’, to seek, in other words, for perfection, though for collective political purposes rather than for personal salvation.

  6. The attribute of the priesthood of all believers is missing, though members may well regard themselves as at least company commanders in the revolutionary army, and capable of operating as political beings on their own without directives from above.

  7. In fact, of course, the recitation of formulae may be a poor training for independent action in the real political world.

  8. For some groups the level of participation by members is unbelievably high, and there is at least as great a difference in this respect between them and most members of political parties as that which exists between sectarians and members of denominations.

  9. The concept of spontaneous worship is naturally lacking in political groups, but members may well be expected to declare their allegiance and beliefs among their fellows at work and play – if indeed they have any spare time from politics.

  10. They are never indifferent to the state, but bitterly hostile both to it and to many aspects of modern society.

  11. Their commitment is often total and more clearly defined than in other political organisations, while some political grouplets have a totalitarian hold over their members.

Thus we can see that if this cluster of attributes is indeed associated with political groups, then the use of the word ‘sect’ to describe them is not a mere expletive but has some descriptive power. Though there are some differences between them and religious sects, we should not be surprised if similar personality types and similar behaviour patterns are common to both sorts of organisations.

The first great contrast between political and religious groups is that the political groups are tiny, since their size may range from only 50 to 5000 at the very most, while an organisation of 300 or 400 members is a significant force. What is more, such an organisation’s members will be overwhelmingly voluntaristic and one-generational, of the sort that Weber and Troeltsch regarded as typical of Protestant religious sects. Even if the sect is relatively long lived, recruitment is likely to stay voluntaristic. By contrast, a small religious sect in Britain may number several tens of thousands. Again, unlike the political group, most religious sects will be made up overwhelmingly of families, which may provide future recruits, though there have been exceptions in the past, such as the Shakers. Present day political tendencies, whether sectarian or not, probably have very low natural reproduction rates, and often, when members start families, they drop out of membership. In at least one group in Western Europe, and one moreover that is relatively very large, perhaps in 1987 the largest Trotskyist group in the developed world,6 this is formalised, and members are expelled for procreation.7

The second great contrast is the short life-span of the political sect compared to the religious one. The reasons for these two distinctions are closely related. Like some religious sects, the political sect sets itself up in opposition to the affairs of this world, but unlike them its ideology must at least attempt to come to terms with, and indeed influence, or claim to influence, that world. In a sense, therefore, it is tested against what is happening, while the religious sect attempts to define an ideology that will remain valid whatever events occur outside. The latter’s ideology, therefore, is circular and metaphysical, while that of the political tendency must appear, at least to its own members, as rational and scientific. It must, in the long run, produce material results. Thus most political sects do not have a long run, and recruitment from the children of members, therefore, is not an option. The political tendency, however, starts to shape its ideology in a metaphysical direction the more it takes on sectarian-religious behaviour and attributes, or, vice versa, it may take on sectarian attributes after it has shaped its ideology in a metaphysical way.

The Socialist Party of Great Britain
The most striking example of this type of behaviour is seen in the Socialist Party of Great Britain,8 a group of a few hundred people, which is rapidly approaching its centenary, and is easily the longest-lived Marxist grouping in this country. Its genesis in 1904 arose out of a split in the Social Democratic Federation, the leading Marxist party in Britain at the time. The basis for the break was an argument over the SDF’s right-wing behaviour. The SDF, like most of the continental social democrats at the time, had essentially two programmes, a minimum one, which was for everyday political struggle and demands, and a maximum one, which was the total socialist programme. There was little relationship between the two, so everyday politics, and the consequent compromises with political allies that seemed inevitable in the circumstances, increasingly took precedence over the long-term objectives. There was one programme for Sunday, and another for every other day of the week. The SPGB simply declared that they would wear their Sunday best programme everyday, and in order not to dirty it they refused to have any immediate programme of everyday demands at all. The participation of their party in anything but the total demand for socialism as a whole was ruled out of court. The objective of socialism in the future increasingly took on the characteristics of a Holy Grail with little to do with mundane events which occurred around them, such as two world wars and the rise of fascism. Such problems could only be resolved by ‘Socialism’. From this initial stance has flowed their behaviour since then.

Like many religious groupings, the SPGB is exclusivist and eschews any allies, so there is a consistent drive for doctrinal purity which certainly cuts across its claims to universality. Membership is determined by tests of doctrinal ability so that, unlike most such groups, members have to pass a formal exam. Levels of activity are much less frenetic than those of other groups. Activity patterns have changed somewhat over the years with the decline of street meetings, for which the old SPGB orators were famous. Television has killed off the open-air preaching tradition, and the party has no access to the mass media. Their paper, Socialist Standard, advertises meetings, and takes up the issues of the day, explaining the Marxist position generally in clear English that is refreshingly devoid of jargon. These meetings and discussions may take place perhaps as often as once a week, and occasionally debates with outsiders are arranged. All meetings are open. The paper is sold in left-wing bookshops and to contacts, but the only party activity apart from this is at elections. The SPGB believes that socialism is impossible unless a socialist government (themselves) is elected. They therefore stand in a few constituencies in every election. The recent sharp rise in candidates’ deposits has meant that the numbers standing in general elections have been cut back, and this reform could be seen as religious discrimination, doubtless unintended, by parliament. Their sectarianism is shown by the fact that members are promptly expelled for going on any demonstration of a political nature not called by the SPGB, or, indeed, joining any pressure group which lobbies MPs. SPGBers may be members of trade unions and support economic strikes, but only as individuals, not as party members, and they never attempt to generate a political position inside a union. Members would refuse to join a political strike. No other political group is recognised as being socialist. Male members are conscientious objectors in both war and peace. There is some limited recruitment of the children of members, or at least this has occurred in the past. Many members are vegetarians, though this has never been a condition of membership. There are a few other very small similar groups, largely in the English-speaking world, most of which derive from British emigrants or returned immigrants as in Jamaica and Austria.

The socialist future for the SPGB has an otherworldliness about it that is far more marked than in other political tendencies. There is no time limit as to when this desirable state of affairs will come about. The only mechanism posited is via a normal parliamentary election. If members live under an undemocratic government, they might deplore it, but would not see the restoration or achievement of democracy as their task, and they would refuse to combine with anyone else to struggle for democratic rights if the latter had not passed their exam. (A small affiliate of a few individuals existed in prewar Austria. Under Hitler, from 1938 to 1945, they did nothing until after the war, when they were able to stand again in the elections.) The SPGB therefore simply ‘bears witness’ to its doctrinal purity, and expels individuals who are detected in heresy. They do not expel for anything else, however heinous. As an example of their very principled stand here was the case when, during the Second World War, a popular newspaper exposed a call-girl racket run by a couple who were both members.9 Despite the possibility that an organisation that pushed conscientious objection would have been liable to a terrible witch-hunt at that time, its annual conference firmly refused to expel the two members. Even though it could be argued that these two were exploiting working-class women in the vilest manner, the principle of expulsion solely for political reasons could not be watered down. The national newspaper never noticed the procurers’ party membership, and the crisis passed, though few other political groups would have passed such a test. They are not moralists as far as party members are concerned, and do not worry if they have very privileged lifestyles, though most members could be categorised, broadly speaking, as lower-middle-class. The lack of criticism of a lifestyle arises, of course, from the fact that everyday matters cannot be issues taken up by the party. The only thing that concerns them is the formal statement of belief in the socialist future, for only that can be relevant. Other roads lead inevitably to ‘reformism’ and concern for the affairs of this world, together with alliances with the less-than-socialist, the impure if you will.

Thus it seems clear that the SPGB would be less likely to be affected by economic, social and political change around it than any other political group known to me. It therefore more closely approximates to the definition of a religious sect than any other, though its members, who have a formal atheist position, would strongly repudiate such a suggestion. There is indeed some overlap of its milieu with that of the Secular Society. Their only activity is propaganda or ‘Witnessing to the Word’, together with a few candidatures at general elections, and these latter are in the style of the conversion activities of the Brethren, formal rather than real; for example, there must be a minimum of 10 members in a constituency to stand a candidate. The SPGB is the nearest thing on the political scene to a passive, quietist ‘sect’ of the ‘introversionist’ type. There are some similarities with the Exclusive Brethren, though these can be exaggerated. As in the Exclusives, there are no full-time professionals, and leadership emerges as the result of the public recognition of doctrinal ability. Like the Brethren, too, there is a certain tension, for doctrine has to be developed if only to take account of changes in society.10 Leading individuals can therefore find themselves squeezed out to only a marginal importance if the developments that they espouse are not recognised by the other members. Consequently, they lose their authority. Quite distinct from the Exclusives, however, the SPGB does make a real effort to convert others to its point of view. If it did not the party would not have lasted as long as it has. Nevertheless, recently there have been reports of considerable changes within the SPGB.11 If so, that suggests that the world outside has created problems for even the quietist type Marxism of the SPGB, and there must be a possibility that great convulsions will occur in future within other Marxist groups if even the SPGB makes a radical change of direction.

The Workers Revolutionary Party
The second example is of a very different type in respect of its style, rapid evolution and eventually explosive denouement. This organisation, known towards the end of its life as the Workers Revolutionary Party, exhibited a charismatic leadership, strong adventist tendencies and a frenetic activist style, and seemed to attract to itself a very particular type of personality. Understandably, it was much shorter-lived than the SPGB. Its genesis was out of a straight political group that showed few or no religious tendencies – the Revolutionary Communist Party of the Second World War period, a body in which nearly all the Trotskyists of Britain were united. (It was the only time that nearly all the Trotskyists were united.) At the end of the war, the Trotskyist movement quite rationally believed that the immediate postwar period would be characterised by economic crises and consequent revolutionary upheavals.12 They were not alone in this view, which was not confined to the left either. For whatever reason, such a crisis did not occur, and after a number of confusing faction fights and internal quarrels a group around Gerry Healy won the majority of what was left of the organisation.13 After an underground existence in the Labour Party, they formed the Socialist Labour League in 1958, all the while continuing to maintain that either the revolutionary crisis was happening, or was just about to happen. With such a dreadful crisis in the making, a revolutionary situation was therefore around the corner. At such a time, a hard, devoted, clear-sighted leadership was needed, and these attributes were assumed to exist in the central committee of the SLL. Not simply did this belief play an ideological role with most instructive effects on the organisation and its membership, but it also justified a secular version of the Doctrine of the Elect. Just as the leaders of the Restorationist House Churches see themselves as a delegated leadership from God, and if this leadership is questioned then the challengers are guilty of rebellion against God, so SLLers and WRPers were accused of being enemies of the working class if they attempted to question any manifestations of Gerry Healy’s leadership.14 Such a state of affairs implied an iron discipline, the concentration of power in the hands of a few people at the top, and the need for frantic activity and financial sacrifice on the part of the rank and file. The leadership, in particular Healy, took on strongly-marked charismatic characteristics, while activity and fervour arose out of faith and belief in the forthcoming revolution, rather than from rational evidence and political sensitivity to the world, which, indeed, pointed the other way. The belief that the crisis was a matter of months away remained a constant factor in SLL/WRP politics for 30 years, despite many tactical twists and turns.

Spurred on by the belief that on their actions today depended the future of mankind, activity for the vast majority of members consisted of paper sales, fund raising and rallies. The raising of money was always to develop a more regular paper, which eventually resulted in a daily, though, of course, with minuscule sales. The paper was seen as an essential weapon in the class struggle, but, to continue the metaphor, the weapon of a daily paper was far too massive for a tiny organisation to wield. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, there was a frantic round of selling in the evening in public houses in a style reminiscent of the Salvation Army’s War Cry. In fact, most members were given a quota of papers which they had to pay for and then did not sell. This was increasingly the case as time went on, but members did not admit this failure to one another until after they had left or were expelled from the group. In any case, public house sales activity fell off. Rallies were worked for by running discos, and by promising young people that there would be a free disco after the meeting. Thus each member might get up to a dozen others on average to come along, but these were often very unpolitical working-class youth. So 500 activists could collect a sizeable rally of 4000 people. In a similar way to a mass religious service of the Jehovah’s Witnesses or the Assemblies of God, in itself the large meeting legitimises the belief that something of significance is going on, and gives relevance and reassurance to the members, who feel that they are taking part in a great enterprise. Each rally had to be presented as a great triumph and a step on the road of party building. What made this process unstable and full of tension, however, was that each successive rally had to be larger than the previous one to maintain the illusion of dynamism and triumphalism. Eventually, there was bound to be a falling off, which would necessarily be blamed on the lack of faith and commitment of the members. At one such assembly in Wembley in the early 1970s, there were enormous portraits of Trotsky, Marx and Healy that were placed behind the speakers’ platform. The whole affair had something of what I imagine to have been the ambience of a religious-political event like a Nuremberg rally, and was in great contrast to a meeting of the SLL in 1958 in Westminster of 600 or 700 people, where many shop stewards and manual workers were present. That earlier meeting was of a recognisable political, rather than quasi-religious, type and, of its type, very impressive.

In the 1970s, the WRP’s trade union activity was largely concentrated at one factory in Oxford, and, though real to the members who were shop stewards there, it played, in addition, an important symbolic role in the organisation. Only a few members on the central committee dealt with ‘the workers’ and their representatives, so that this monopoly of communication emphasised the power and charisma of those same leaders before the ordinary lower-middle-class membership. A further important part of the organisation’s claim to legitimacy was the assertion that it was a true International Party, in the manner of the Comintern, with allies in many other countries. It would take too long here to detail the relations of the SLL/WRP with other groups abroad, since there were many confusing changes.15

With such a strong belief in the imminence of the crisis, the adventist attributes of the organisation became steadily more marked as time went on, but were less and less related to what was happening in the world outside, and more and more to the internal needs of the sect. Even so, there was a constant tension which arose out of the millennialist expectations of the ideology and the need of the organisation for cohesion as these expectations were not fulfilled. This was always explained, in the most violent language, as the political treachery of the Labour leadership, the Communist Party or other Trotskyist groups. The image of the world that was presented was of a thin pink line of misleaders and conscious traitors holding back the proletarian masses from revolutionary action. The crisis was a crisis of ‘leadership’. With a proper leadership, that of Gerry Healy, there would be a revolution, for there either was, or was about to be, a sufficiently deep crisis to merit the overthrow of the state. Once The Party was seen as the only embodiment of ‘correct’ doctrine, the problem arose as to who was to assess the authenticity of doctrine in any individual case. In a similar way to Christian sects, the definition of who is a true Christian (or Trotskyist revolutionary) inevitably turned out to be the job of the charismatic leader. With a strict definition of orthodoxy, there was likewise a broad definition of heresy and so a rapid turnover of members and witch-hunts of those who queried the infallibility of the leadership, including, occasionally, violent assaults on members and ex-members.16 This violence was solely reserved for the heretics or misleaders, and there was little or none towards the police or agents of what was perceived as the ruling class. Like both the SPGB and the Exclusives, there was a constant separating out of the membership from other people who were considered heretical, and, on one occasion in 1968, I observed the members of the central committee of the SLL link arms to keep away some people from another organisation who wished to join their demonstration. This seemed both very symbolic of the sectarian characteristics which were steadily becoming more and more strongly marked, and of the contradiction between the claims of universality for the organisation and of its pretended purity of doctrine. In 1973, for instance, the few hundred people in the SLL declared themselves to be the Workers Revolutionary Party because they stated that at this time there was the need for a working-class leadership. Significantly, while the SLL had been, until about 1967, easily the largest Trotskyist grouping, by 1973 it was probably in third, or even fourth, place among British Trotskyists, and had played no part in the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign or the big strikes over coal or the docks, though its rivals had had a small role in some of these industrial disputes, and had initiated and organised the VSC.

With this pattern of belief, it would seem that it was a necessary condition for the group’s existence that there should be no real economic crisis or mass strike, but that these events should merely be imminent. If there was such a state of affairs, then the question would be posed among the membership as to why their party was not leading the masses. The answer, too, would have to be in religious-sectarian terms, and the solution would have to be found within the WRP and the shortcomings of individuals, rather than any inherent difficulty in the actual circumstances of the world outside. The heresy-hunting behaviour encouraged by the leaders would be bound to become internecine as a split developed amongst themselves. It may, therefore, be no coincidence that in the autumn of 1985, after the defeat of the miners’ strike by a Conservative government and with unemployment at an all-time postwar high, the party exploded in a vicious faction fight. This would appear to be dramatic evidence of my hypothesis above as to why political sects fail to have a long life-span, since real events, outside their ranks, pose great and insoluble difficulties of interpretation for them. In this case, the internal struggle included accusations of sexual wrong-doing by the charismatic leader, Gerry Healy, a man of 73, all of which was far more analogous to factional behaviour among sectarian evangelicals than in any left-wing group, where it was very unusual indeed, no matter how strong a political group’s religious-sectarian characteristics.17 It is one of the two such cases known to me among such groups in the postwar period. This was the more remarkable as the party had been characterised by its rivals as ‘puritanical’ in its attitude to sexual matters.18 More than half-a-dozen fragments of the party still exist, two of which, confusingly, call themselves the WRP, and the smaller of which stood 10 candidates at the 1987 general election.19 Healy died in December 1989, but a few individuals who were around him, largely from the theatrical milieu, maintain that they are continuing his work.

Another interesting development in the WRP which was, and is, practically unknown in other left-wing groups, was the creation of a secular equivalent of the doctrine of ‘Double Honour’ so strongly held and manifested among Evangelical sects and denominations in the United States.20 Just as the leaders of the evangelical groups are blessed both by prophetic gifts and by the material rewards donated to them by their followers consequent on these gifts, so it was argued, though not in print, that the ‘leadership’ of the World Revolution and World Working Class deserved an expensive car, comfortable quarters, good meals at restaurants, and, more discreetly, the sexual comforts provided by female comrades. To be fair, this was not true of any of the other leaders of the SLL/WRP apart from Healy. Such a situation is almost unknown in most other left-wing groups, which are often characterised by considerable asceticism of most of their leaders.21 A further striking religious-sectarian characteristic of the WRP throughout the late 1970s and 1980s was the increasing tendency of its paper and activity to centre around what were called ‘philosophical’ questions.22 Members, heretics and opponents outside were denounced for their political mistakes, but these errors were always assumed to arise from false ‘philosophical’ positions, and Gerry Healy was stated to be a great philosopher. Again, this attempted development of abstract, almost theological, characteristics to justify their behaviour and positions can be seen as an increasingly religious attribute. So the original ideological, quasi-political position encouraged a sectarian approach to the world, which, in turn, encouraged the development of a quasi-religious ideology which, had the tensions been controlled, could have resulted in the very long term, probably after the demise of the charismatic leader, in a very much more passive and separatist sectarian formation, akin to the SPGB, and, like that body, far removed from anything envisaged by Marx or Trotsky.

Sects and Sectarians
Neither of the two groups that have just been described exhibit all the phenomena appertaining to religious sects listed by Wilson, but neither do religious sects. This cluster of attributes that he suggests is, as was stated before, an ideal type, and no sect has all of them in a pronounced form. Nevertheless, the SPGB has about half-a-dozen of these characteristics, and the SLL/WRP about nine or nearly all. The SPGB is voluntary, membership is by knowledge of doctrine which is emphasised much more than in the SLL/WRP, deviants are expelled, there is no formal hierarchy and all members are constitutionally equal, it is hostile to the state and present social order, and the commitment of its members is much greater than in normal political parties even if far less intense than that in most Trotskyist groups. Likewise the SLL/WRP before its break-up in 1985 was voluntary, some knowledge of doctrine was required and this was increasingly of a ‘philosophical’ kind, there was present a self-conception of the ‘elect’ with all other Trotskyists and Marxists considered beyond the pale, great emphasis was put on the self-sacrifice needed amongst Bolsheviks – a level of personal perfection if you like. There was, however, hardly a priesthood of all believers, for the organisation was heavily structured with an authoritarian leadership but an intensely high level of rank and file participation, and activity in party matters did occur. Great hostility to present day society was expressed, commitment that was demanded was total, and the party had a totalitarian hold over its members far more intense than among other Marxist or Trotskyist movements. In addition, the SLL/WRP had the charismatic leadership and adventist tendencies which occur in some, though by no means all, Protestant sects. Finally, the genesis of these sectarian characteristics was rather different in the two cases, for the SPGB’s arose out of an abstract, almost theological, passive programme, while the SLL/WRP’s came from an activist programme which derived from a totally unrealistic assessment of the world.

Thus far, these brief remarks on the political groups which display sectarian characteristics may define the phenomena much too narrowly. It is the case that sectarianism, whether religious or politico-religious, is far too often thought to be determined by organisational typologies, not by ideological ones. Sectarian behaviour, which is always determined by belief, may therefore express itself in strictly organisational terms, but may also appear in a far more unsystematic and inchoate form, and simply manifest itself as a shared belief system and lifestyle, both of which, however, tend to exclusivity and inerrancy. In this context, Andrew Walker has pointed out that in mainstream churches, neo-Pentecostalism is a ‘sectarian implant’, to use his apposite expression.23 I believe that the same phenomenon can be observed across the left-wing political spectrum in what I would call the ‘vegan left’, which, like the British neo-Pentecostalists, is a largely middle-class stratum. It is noticeable to an observer that their language is often somewhat laboured consciously to avoid any indication of prejudice against any non-heterosexual orientation, or there is a new and invented use of language to express their sympathy for feminism. Thus the individual’s personal purity is proclaimed, in the same way as in a shipyard a member of a religious sectarian group is distinguished by his failure to use expletives and his dislike of alcohol.24 What is difficult is to determine the degree of intensity of observable behaviour amongst the ‘implant’ which justifies this label of ‘sectarian’.

I would define sectarian characteristics, in Wilson’s words, as the degree to which the sect sought ‘to enforce behaviour on those who accept belief’, and sought ‘every occasion to draw the faithful apart from the rest of society and into the company of each other’. Truly political organisations would, of course, seek to involve themselves in the world, even if in order to change it, rather than drawing apart. However, there are problems of gaining evidence of this process for the sectarian implant. Because the implant is not an independent organisational form, one will not find the evidence in a journal or history, but one is forced back on individual observation of an event. This could be disregarded as subjective and personal. Yet descriptions and what might appear at first sight as anecdotal evidence have their value, and, indeed, in default of other evidence, they may be all that we have to go on. In conclusion, I would suggest that there is a rich field for further investigation here among those whose political activity seems to be defined rather more by a shared lifestyle and intolerance of those outside the charmed circle, than by some coherent ideological belief system.


1. Bryan Wilson, Sects and Society, London, 1961, p.1.

2. See Roger O’Toole, The Precipitous Path: Studies in Political Sects, Toronto, 1977.

3. The tension between ideology and the need for effective action is always a difficulty for anarchist believers. ‘I am fed up with the anarchist movement being just a total shambles!’, interview with Ian Bone, founder and chief spokesperson of the ‘Class War Tendency’ and ‘Bash the Rich Campaign’, easily the biggest, most dynamic and most proletarian anarchist grouping in 1988 (Solidarity, No.13, Winter 1986-87).

4. ‘The development of the system of socialist sects and that of the real workers’ movement always stands in an inverse ratio to each other. So long as the sects are (historically) justified the working class is not yet ripe for an independent historic movement. As soon as it has attained this maturity, all sects are essentially reactionary.’ (Karl Marx, letter to Friedrich Bolte, 23 November 1871, Marx-Engels Correspondence 1846-95, London, 1934, p.315.)

5. Bryan Wilson in Michael Hill (ed), Sociology of Religion, London, pp.76-7.

6. The largest group in the world claiming to be Trotskyist may be in Latin America. I am not familiar with them, but only with those in Western Europe, North America and Australasia. Japanese Trotskyists are difficult to relate to any understanding that one might have of those elsewhere, and relations between them and those of the developed countries appear to be tenuous.

7. See the remarks about the Lutte Ouvrière group in Jacques Roussel, Histoire du Movement Trotskyste en France (Cahiers Spartacus, 1971) for the background of this group. ‘Il voulait être père de famille’ is about the worst thing anyone can say about an ex-member, and was indeed said to me about Roussel. The International Communist Union is the ‘International’ child of this French parent. Most of the other French groups mentioned in this useful little book are now very much less important. See also Revolutionary History, Volume 1, No.4 and Volume 2, No.1.

8. See Robert Barltrop, The Monument, London, 1975, for the history and background of the SPGB. See also Walter Kendall, The Revolutionary Movement in Britain, London, 1969, for details of the early history in its political context.

9. Barltrop, op. cit., p.131.

10. See the SPGB’s position taken over fascism and war. The SPGB leadership correctly recognised that recognition of a distinction between fascism and parliamentary democracy was the thin end of the wedge for their politics of abstentionism, though they bent their Marxism to arrive at this position, and drove out one of their leading members (Barltrop, op. cit., pp.101-4).

11. The SPGB has recently suffered a serious split (July 1997).

12. See Sam Bornstein and Al Richardson, War and the International, London, 1986, for a committed but scholarly account of the British Trotskyist movement up to 1949, and Revolutionary History, Volume 6, No.2/3, for more material on the Trotskyist movement in Britain in the 1950s and 1960s.

13. See the series of articles by Bob Pitt in the monthly Workers News (1990-92) for a detailed and honest account of Healy’s early career, and John Walter (Ken Tarbuck), ‘The Origins of the SWP’ in the April 1990 issue of the same paper.

14. See Andrew Walker, Restoring the Kingdom, London, 1985, for details of the House Church Restorationist movement.

15. See ‘The Healyite Diaspora’, Spartacist, No.38-39, 1986, and Healy ‘Reconstructs’ the Fourth International, New York, 1966.

16. See Robin Blick’s article in the New Statesman, 6 December 1985.

17. See ‘Reds in the Bed’, Daily Mirror, 31 October 1985, and Observer, 3 November 1985, among many other articles in the national press at about that time, together with a repeat of these comments about sexual irregularities in ‘Marx and Sparks at New Party’, Financial Times, 24 August 1987. For the group which expelled Healy and which made the accusations, see Workers Press, 13 October 1985.

18. Personal communication with Robin and Karen Blick. According to the Blicks, the sexes were strictly segregated at both SLL and Young Socialist camps, including even married couples, and guards were set to patrol the camp to prevent the ‘youth’ creeping into each other’s tents. Rumours of this type of behaviour were related amongst other Trotskyist tendencies with the greatest of hilarity, but were often discounted by the fairer-minded of Healy’s opponents as examples of ‘odium theologicum’ and scandal-mongering.

19. See ‘Healyism Implodes’, Spartacist, No.36-37, Winter 1985-86, and for the 1987 election ‘Under A False Flag’ by Cliff Slaughter in Workers Press, 15 May 1987, written in high triumphalist style by the present larger WRP about the smaller one, together with ‘Healyism Disintegrates’ in Workers Press, 28 August 1987. For later developments, see Workers Hammer, September 1987, and Socialist Organiser, September 1987. [The WRP Workers Press has now dissolved itself, but the WRP News Line still manages with a minuscule membership to produce a daily paper (July 1997).]

20. ‘Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honour, especially they who labour in word and doctrine. For the Scripture saith: "Thou shalt not muzzle the ox that treadeth out the corn"’ And "The labourer is worthy of his hire."’ (I Timothy 5:17.) This is interpreted to mean that the leaders of evangelical sects should be supported in a rather more lavish style than their followers – and at the latter’s expense.

21. There have recently been disturbing rumours of this type of behaviour within a small American group, but in this case I have heard no accusations of violence against members, but simply evidence of the doctrine of double honour, and of some sexual behaviour which goes beyond the bounds of the acceptable. Even so, the content of the most hostile reports seems a good deal less gross than the behaviour that was current in the WRP.

22. I have not undertaken an arithmetical analysis in column inches of the content of News Line during the period, so my evidence is merely an impressionistic one gained by going through the files.

23. Andrew Walker, ‘Pentecostal Power: The Charismatic Renewal Movement and the Politics of Pentecostal Experience’, in Eileen Barker (ed), Of Gods and Men, Mercer University Press, 1983, p.104.

24. Personal observation in Northfields Labour Party Ward, Ealing, 1986-87. [This would appear to be similar to the ‘Politically Correct’ attitudes apparently current on many US campuses. (Spring 1991)]